What Money Cannot Buy
People often ask me, why do you volunteer so much? And, how can you volunteer for the places you do that deal with trauma and heartbreak? The answer is a complex and often confusing one; so much so that articulating it is something I avoid. My usual answer is to say that it makes me feel good and, while there is truth in that, the reasons are a mixture of passion, purpose, truth seeking, and desperation for connection. What has always been consistent is my desire to make some small difference in this world, which for me is worth more than anything money could buy.
I remember the first time I truly felt I could have an impact. It was while telling my story of living with PTSD and I could see a woman in the audience getting emotional. She asked me a very profound question, “how did you decide not to kill yourself?”. Whoa! After the talk ended myself and a few others wrapped around her in order to refer her to the support she so obviously needed. That was it. That was the moment I knew my voice could make a difference. What is interesting is that I had been volunteering hundreds of hours before this time and had started when I was a child, made to by parents who understood the value of giving back. But until this one moment, I had not thought of the impact that the giving of time could have on an individual in their own journey.
There had been so many times when beautiful things happened that brought a smile to my face. As a volunteer with the Red Cross in their Disaster Management program, I had supported hundreds of evacuees due to forest fires or floods. There was a personal toll to be paid for this work, but what I got back from it was more than you can imagine; lifelong friends and connections, a child’s smile when you gave them a sticker to wear, Elders holding my hands and saying “thank you”, an entire municipal Council giving myself and my colleagues a standing ovation for helping their community. I could go on and on with so many memories that have sustained me through the darkest of times. Looking back, I now understand and appreciate how it is the little moments that are the biggest paybacks and what make volunteering so worthwhile.
To be sure, I have gained a lot out of my various experiences in the volunteer world. It is how I gained leadership skills, how I got many of the jobs I’ve held, and turned me from an introvert to an extrovert (believe it or not I used to be painfully shy!). While I am grateful for all of this, I can say without a doubt that the greatest gift has been being alive. I truly don’t believe that I would be here today if it wasn’t for being a volunteer. It gave me purpose. It made me feel needed. It allowed me to grow and believe in myself, even as my brain tried to convince me to stop trying and crawl in a hole of despair. I’ve wanted to die so many times in my life, and have tried to make that happen on various occasions when the pain was just too much. There are many reasons why I am still here, including the love of those around me and great supports from professionals, however I know in my heart that the gifts from my volunteer life are a huge piece of what sustained me for so long, and what brought me to where I am today.
In my current work as a peer supporter for first responders with Boots on the Ground, I am able to speak to people who are having tough times, need a listening ear, or may be in a full-blown crisis. You may wonder how I can do so when I have my own mental health issues; the answer is the three R’s – Recovery, Resolve, Resilience. I fought my ass off to get to a place where the three R’s were stronger than the demons in my mind. Whenever I answer the phone, I feel a sense of purpose but also a connection to the individual on the other end who is hurting and in pain. I’ve come to realize that my childish notion of changing the world is an unrealistic dream, but I do know that if we can positively impact just one life, that is a gift more precious than gold.
There have been hard times along this journey and I’ve often felt like quitting or giving up. Moments have come where I needed to take a long, hard look at myself and my motivations; was I doing this for the right reasons or was I doing this to avoid dealing with the pain in my own life? Asking those questions and being self-reflective allowed me to learn more about myself and how to balance giving back to others with giving to myself. I’ve been the recipient of several awards and honours for volunteering and, while they all mean a lot to me, what I appreciate the most are those moments I carry with me in my heart. No one and nothing can take those memories and feelings away and even if I am ever as poor as a church mouse, I will remain rich beyond measure.